400 attend URI’s third annual Food System Summit

Participants hear from local, state and federal experts, discuss next steps in implementing Rhode Island Food Strategy

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Speaker Nessa Richman
Speaker Nessa Richman, network director of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council (at left), talks with attendees at the 2019 Rhode Island Food System Summit at the University of Rhode Island. (URI photo/Nora Lewis)

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 31, 2019 — More than 400 government, academic, business and community partners who play a role in the state’s food system learned Friday, Jan. 18 that the United States could benefit a great deal from others around the world about how to deal with climate change and its impact on food production locally, nationally and globally.

The third annual Rhode Island Food System Summit, sponsored by the Rhode Island Foundation, URI Business Engagement Center and the Rhode Island Food Center at URI, was an opportunity for those involved in this rapidly growing economic sector to drill down into the five pillars of the Rhode Island Food Strategy, hear from experts, and work together to identify next steps and ways to better support the state’s food economy.

Sue AnderBois, director of food strategy for the state, praised those involved, stating, “the strength of the Rhode Island food system is the people – the growers, makers, waste haulers, fishers, community workers, researchers, government, and so many more. The Food Summit is an amazing opportunity for us to join together and plant the seeds for what comes next.”

Keynote speaker Kathleen Merrigan
Keynote speaker Kathleen Merrigan, executive director, Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, speaks at the 2019 Rhode Island Food System Summit at the University of Rhode Island. (URI photo/Nora Lewis)

One of the keynote speakers, Danielle Nierenberg, president and co-founder of the Washington, D.C. think tank Food Tank and host of the podcast “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg,” spoke about the need for more global thinking and sharing of ideas.

“Farmers, scientists and policy makers in this country have so much to learn from the rest of the world,” said Nierenberg. “Farmers in other countries have been dealing with climate change for a long time now — they have needed to adapt, to change their cropping systems, and figure out better ways to use water.”

Nierenberg also discussed the role of private industry and the need for more open communication between those involved in the sustainable agriculture movement and the private sector to move sustainable agriculture forward.

URI President David M. Dooley, who recently returned from a trip to Indonesia, thanked partners and attendees, explaining why the annual Summit is so important. He reiterated that the impact of environmental factors on food security is a common concern and theme locally, nationally and globally.

“Climate change is real – with potentially severe consequences for the population, including its impact on agricultural production both on land and at sea,” Dooley said. “As we come together in Rhode Island and ask how we can foster food security and ensure healthier, better food products end up on the tables of our citizens regardless of their economic condition – we work to answer questions that are central to the mission of our University and vital to the future of Rhode Island”

AnderBois shared an update on the state’s Food Strategy, while Nessa Richman from the Rhode Island Food Policy Council provided perspectives from that group. A mid-day panel discussion and breakout sessions covered the strategy’s five pillars: production, spurring and empowering growth, building and expanding markets, food insecurity and food waste – as well as ways the University and others can play a role in implementing the strategy.

John Kirby, dean of the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences, underscored the importance of the food sector in Rhode Island in terms of jobs and the economy in the near term and creating opportunity for the future.

Kirby and Dooley spoke about the recently announced “innovation campuses,” including the Agriculture Technology Park in West Kingston. The project is a collaboration of Rhode Island Agricultural Technologies (a partnership between the RI Mushroom Co. and American AgEnergy, Inc.) and national companies, Verinomics and VoloAgri, to create an agricultural innovation research center and state-of-the-art production facility.

Afternoon keynote speaker, Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, discussed the recently signed 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act (otherwise known as the Farm Bill).

Characterized as largely “status quo,” she said the new federal law includes the rolling back of changes regarding payment limitations and farm payment eligibility. It cuts conservation funding as well as institutes new work requirements for SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamp) beneficiaries. She also noted that within the farm bill, programs such as nutrition incentive programs, which were dependent on discretionary annual appropriations, are now mandatory.

Merrigan urged, “For those of us who consider ourselves advocates for sustainable agriculture our mission in the next couple of years is to watch for alerts from organizations who help keep us informed on the timing of implementation and to make sure we weigh in on the rules.”

Following the speaking program, attendees visited several sites throughout the state to learn more about Rhode Island’s food ecosystem. Site visits included: Matunuck Oyster Farm, Whalers Brewing Co., Farm Fresh RI, RI Mushroom Company and Shaidzon Beer Co., the Port of Galilee, Farming Turtles, Earth Care Farm and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

Michael Hallock, chief executive officer of RI Mushroom Co., has attended the Summit each year and served as a panelist this year. He said, “The Summit provides us with the opportunity to hear from more voices and for them to be involved. The ability to put ideas into action and communicate directly with our peers to help educate people and set trends in food is so valuable. The Food Summit is a platform that elevates us all.”